Alabama lawmakers strengthen ALDOT accountability as part of gas tax increase

The Alabama Capitol Building in Montgomery, Alabama.

In an eventful start to the 2019 legislative session, Alabama lawmakers have taken action to address two of the most serious deficiencies in the state’s transportation system: a lack of funding and a lack of accountability.

Last week, Governor Kay Ivey signed a bill passed by the Legislature that will incrementally raise the gas tax by 10 cents over the next three years — and adjust it to a national highway construction cost index after that.

In addition to passing the state’s first gas tax increase since 1992, Alabama legislators overwhelmingly passed a bill increasing oversight of the Alabama Department of Transportation. This bill intended to strengthen the role of the Joint Transportation Committee and to require the agency to submit a long-range plan to ensure that transportation projects are prioritized according to a list of important, objective criteria — including commuter benefits, transportation safety, ecological impact, traffic density, recreation and tourism.

This action was introduced through an amendment from Representative Margie Wilcox, and is a notable first step toward holding ALDOT to specific accountability terms and a more transparent process around how projects are selected.

“The amendment improves accountability and transparency,” said Representative Wilcox. “I appreciate the unanimous support from my fellow legislators.”

The Joint Transportation Committee — made up of 12 senators and 12 representatives — will meet four times a year. The legislation also establishes that for the first time ever, the committee will have the ability to amend ALDOT’s long-range plan in concurrence with the governor, who has constitutional authority over the agency.

Cities and counties, which will receive about a third of the money from the tax — will also report to the committee how much money they receive and how it is spent.

In support of Representative Wilcox’s amendment, SELC Senior Attorney Sarah Stokes spoke at a public hearing emphasizing the importance of enforcing reliance on objective criteria to prioritize transportation projects.

“Our state’s long-standing infrastructure woes have been exacerbated both by lack of funding and by the lack of accountability for the Alabama Department of Transportation,” Stokes said. “Bringing in more money every year is important, but so is ensuring that the money is spent on projects that will actually improve safety and reduce congestion.”

The gas tax increase will provide an estimated $320 million in annual transportation funds, which should go to much needed projects based on traffic, safety, economic development, and environmental factors. ALDOT itself recently rated nearly half of interstate and state highways in fair condition or worse.

The funding bill also added a punitive, annual tax on electric vehicles and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles. While the $200 fee on electric vehicles and $100 fee on plug-in hybrids are some of the highest in the nation, a small portion of those fees will go toward funding a grant program to create more charging infrastructure for electric cars.

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